Sicily: Tonnara di Scopello
Sicily and Sardegna have a long tradition of mattanza, a ritual that takes place every May and June, where they catch the giant tuna that swim past the coasts. Today, because of over-fishing, only a few mattanza remain, off Sicily’s Egadi islands.
The Tonnara di Scopello (tunnary of Scopello), on the west edge of Sicily, is a dramatic setting, with centuries-old buildings on the edge of jutting rocks and a Norman castle. It’s possible to imagine the boats launching into the ocean between the dramatic cliffs. The owners of the tonnara have preserved the nets and boats, though the last mattanza took place in 1984.
One of the owners described the mattanza to us; his family (the famed Florio family of Sicily) has owned the tunnary since the time of Garibaldi. He had participated in several mattanza himself, and described a world that was once closed off from the rest of Sicily, accessible only by boat, that became festive only during the season of the mattanza.
The mattanza, he said, was originally devised by the Arabs, who were in Sicily during the ninth century, before the Normans. (“Mattanza” comes from the Spanish word “matar,” to kill.) There’s some evidence that the technique goes back much further, perhaps originating, in some form, in the Phoenician or Carthaginian eras.
The mattanza involves a vast series of nets lowered into the water, in what they call an “isola,” or island. The tuna enter an opening in the nets and then are directed into successive chambers of nets, gradually restricting the space and raising them to the surface, where they’re finally killed in the last “chamber of death.” The isola was vast—100 meters wide by 30 meters deep. It could take as long as a month for the tuna to work their way to the last chamber. Once one tuna entered, the others followed. Tuna, the fisherman told me, are the “sheep of the ocean,” rather than the chickens of the sea.
When I saw the storage area where the nets are still piled high, I couldn’t imagine the task of untangling all those nets. There were nets stacked 20 meters deep by 8 meters wide. The mattanza was very well organized, with a rais, a leader, who directed the action; it ended in a bloody killing and a feast, where even the poorest families ate well for weeks. Much of the tuna was salted and exported to the U.S. For photos of an actual mattanza, watch Stromboli, the Roberto Rossellini film with Ingrid Bergman, which is otherwise unremarkable, (except for the fact that Rossellini originally was going to cast his lover Anna Magnani, who, when she heard about his affair with Bergman, poured a pot of bucatini with red sauce over his head and went off to make another unremarkable movie on a volcanic island, Vulcano.)
The buefin tuna can be 12-14 feet in length and weigh more than a ton; it’s the largest tuna. A hundred years ago, there were dozens of these tunnare along the Sicilian coasts. Now several of these stone buildings, right against the sea, have been turned into accommodations. The Tonnara di Scopello isn’t a hotel, the owner urged me to say, but a simple room in her house. It was quite simple, with random furniture, mismatched plates, and not a shard of soap. But the view outside the window was spectacular, of craggy rocks, castle remains, and a gorgeous sea. Though the heat of August is over, the storms of September were dramatic to watch, with lightning zig-zagging across the sky. In the morning, with calmer seas, I had a delicious swim.
Next blog: my favorite restaurants in Italy this trip…
Photos by Casey McSpadden: Cross River Photography